WHY DO SO MANY prominent social critics possess so little understanding of the causes they champion with such passion? Nothing so limits the public’s ability to form reasoned opinions about vital issues as does the endless barrage of irresponsible, baseless assertions made by such individuals. Consider the issue of affirmative action, whose supporters generally speak as if that policy were largely, if not solely, responsible for all black progress made in recent decades. By extension, of course, they characterize opponents of affirmative action as racists if they are white, or as "Uncle Toms" if they are black implying that anyone opposing racial preferences would be happy to return to the days of Jim Crow. As the late columnist Carl Rowan put it, affirmative action’s critics are motivated by nothing more complex than "apoplectic spasms of bigotry" and a desire to "roll the clock back to a time of segregation and rabid racial discrimination." Along the same lines, legal scholar Johnnetta Cole calls white opposition to affirmative action "a sophisticated expression of racism."
Jesse Jackson has made some of the most notably vicious remarks on this subject. For instance, he characterized Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences in California’s public sector, as a form of "ethnic cleansing" that would purge that state’s colleges and universities of supposedly "undesirable" minority students. He contemptuously referred to Ward Connerly, the black Board of Regents member who led the fight to pass Prop 209, as a "house slave" and a "puppet of the white man." He called former California governor Pete Wilson, who also supported Prop 209, "the Susan Smith of politics" a reference to a young mother who drowned her three small children in 1994; in other words, Wilson was supposedly prepared to cruelly extinguish the hopes and dreams of countless minorities who needed his protection.
When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas voiced his personal opposition to affirmative action, Jackson asserted that Thomas had committed "a brutally violent act paving the way back toward slavery." Likening Thomas to a Klansman, Jackson stated, "At night the enemies of civil rights strike in white sheets, burning crosses. By day, they strike in black robes." In a similar spirit, a featured speaker at the 1995 NAACP national convention stood at the podium and actually referred to Justice Thomas as a "pimp" and a "traitor" to the black community. The Reverend Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also called Thomas a traitor, likening him to Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot. Political scientist Manning Marable asserts that "ethnically, Thomas has ceased to be an African American." Movie director Spike Lee calls Thomas "a handkerchief-head, chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom." Author June Jordan characterizes him as a "virulent Oreo phenomenon."
All of these ugly character assassinations are based on the premise that Thomas’s opposition to affirmative action has somehow driven a stake into the heart of black America. From listening to these statements, one would assume the existence of some great mountain of evidence proving that preferential policies have been indispensable to the social and economic progress of African Americans.
But affirmative action’s proponents seem utterly unaware that black progress was already well underway, and proceeding at a brisk pace, long before the era of affirmative action. In fact, between 1940 and 1960 African Americans were, in many ways, improving their position faster than they would after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or after the dawn of widespread affirmative action programs in the early 1970s. The pre-1960 economic progress of blacks was in large part a result of their massive migration from the rural south to northern cities, where the employment and earning opportunities open to them were far superior. Without a doubt, the strides they made in the space of just two decades must be ranked among the greatest achievements of any demographic group in American history an ascent they began from the very bottom rung of the social ladder.
Whereas in 1940 only 10 percent of black men held middle-class jobs, by 1960 this figure had more than doubled, reaching 23 percent. Between 1940 and 1950 the earnings of the average black man, in real dollars adjusted for inflation, grew by a remarkable 75 percent (about twice the rate at which white male incomes grew), and increased by another 45 percent during the 1950s. By 1960, black male incomes were 2.5 times greater than they had been twenty years earlier, and black female incomes were 2.3 times greater. In two decades, the black poverty rate had virtually been cut in half.
Apart from income, there were additional barometers of black Americans’ growing prosperity. For instance, between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of blacks who owned their homes rose by 65 percent, as compared to a 42 percent rise for whites. In 1940 black life expectancy at birth was just 53 years, fully 11 years lower than the white figure. By 1960 the black average had risen by ten and a half years, while the corresponding white figure had increased by only half that much. During that same twenty-year period, the percentage of blacks who attained high-school diplomas more than tripled, while the corresponding figure for whites grew at only one-fifth that rate.
Clearly, it makes no sense to credit "affirmative action" for setting in motion a trend that was already well underway long before that term ever made its first appearance in the American lexicon. If we are to make wise public-policy decisions as a people, it is imperative that facts, rather than the gaudy rhetorical tapestries woven by uninformed or self-seeking demagogues, comprise the basis for our opinions.